Several years before Chinee passed away, while having one of our weekly gabfests in which Papa, our grandfather was the subject, I mentioned Papa’s height as being somewhere around 6’1” or 6’2”. I heard the Chinee’s familiar belly deep laugh spreading across the 1800 miles distance and although I was always thrilled to hear his infectious laughter, I couldn’t imagine the reason for it this time.
When he’d finally regained his composure, he breathlessly informed me that Papa was a “short” man. I could tell by his breathing that he was threatening at any moment to break out in loud guffaws again. I needed to think. I didn’t want to abruptly end our telephone conversation but Chinee could not have known that he’d just sent me into an emotional tailspin. Almost every one of my memories of Papa centered around his physical statue. Surely, a man with such a strong presence, one who commanded and received respect from all races and ages would also have the height and bodily physique to bolster those admirable attributes, wouldn’t he?
Could Hercules have been a hero without the corporeal features we’ve become so familiar with through Greek mythology? Some erstwhile scholars had surmised that Samson, of Biblical fame, was disarming physically because his strength owed nothing to his appearance. Despite the pictures presented to us in early childhood Bible stories, those same scholars reasoned that no one would have been surprised at all by the strength of a towering, muscle-bound hunk of a man. Therefore, Samson must have been a man who, beyond an awesome head of hair, had little to account for his physical strengths. Because of their scholarly assertions, I’ve had to refocus my views of Samson and thanks to Chinee, so did I also of Papa.
Before bidding Chinee a farewell in that particular phone call, I gathered enough nerve to ask him how tall he thought Papa had been. He reasoned that Papa could have been no taller than 5’7” or 5’8” and that might have been a generous approximation. Having reached my full height of 5’5” at around the age of 13, I was just a little crestfallen to think that the Hercules in my life had turned out to be my Samson. No matter, for if Papa were here standing next to me today and I was 6’5” and he 5’5”, I’d still be looking up at him! I hope you enjoy the stories in my next series of tall tales about my short Papa.
It was probably around 10 or 10:30 in the morning because Papa had already made his first rounds of the fields, fed the animals, curried our horse and was, judging by some of the sounds coming from the kitchen, having a second or third cup of coffee and a very lively discussion with Mama. Mama had already visited her kitchen garden and gathered onions, okra and other vegetables to be used in the noon day meal we East Texans used to call dinner. The sounds of their discussion were being spoken in low but agitated hushed tones so I could not make out what they were saying but I supposed that it wasn’t meant for me to hearw. It was summer and Chinee, as normal, was spending part of the summer with relatives some sixty to eighty or so miles away in Beaumont and Port Arthur and my sister was had gone to town with Mother.
At the very moment that my curiosity gained enough confidence to allow me to eavesdrop on Papa and Mama’s conversation, I was liberated from the compulsion by a call of, “Ooo, Con’ Robert, there,” coming from the front yard. I recognized the caller voice as belonging to one of Papa’s good friend, Con’ Gene. Papa’s chair scrape against the kitchen floor as he pushed back to get up from our large, oversized kitchen table. I was all set to join Papa in the long hallway which began directly off our front porch, intersected the main rooms of our house and ended in the kitchen but Papa had chosen a more indirect route by exiting the house via our back porch which was immediately off the kitchen. I had to hurry in order to catch him since he’d already cleared the backsteps and I was only able to catch up to him by jumping off the back porch and avoiding the steps altogether. Mama’s warning for me to stop running made its way to my ears only after my feet had left the porch and before landing a perfect 10 on the ground mere inches behind Papa! Success! I wouldn’t have miss anything that was said between Papa and Con’ Gene after all!
There were few things better when I was growing up than to be permitted into “Grown Folks” conversations especially when you were the youngest and most good things were kept from you either by conspired adult secrecy or as I was later to learn, by adults speaking their Grown Folks language called “Talking Over Their Heads” which could be accomplished by using double entendre or by communicating beyond the level of comprehension of the wayward listener, of which I was on this specific day.
As Papa narrowed the distance between the backyard and the front, I like an overly excited puppy, was right on his heels. Papa was mumbling under his breath, words I’d usually heard him use when the last 10-penny nail he was hammering would bend just as he was trying to finish up whatever project on which he was working, especially if it was the last nail. He’d use the same murmurings when he’d miss the nail entirely and the hammer would land on his thumb instead. I’d also heard him toss out the same rendering when Ole Mack, the farm’s plow horse and Papa’s 1-horse powered transportation, would become temperamental under the bit and behave more like a jackass than a stallion. Oh Yes indeed, in case you’re wondering, Papa could curse a blue streak and shame any country preacher and I’d heard him do so more than once especially when he didn’t know I was nearby. I’m not certain if he had been aware of my presence that day but even so, he was saying something akin to, “Concern, the Concern, the CONCERNED LUCK!!!!” At least that’s what it sounded like to me and whether those were the actual words or not, I have on many occasions adopted their usage when more colorful words would not have been appreciated.
On this particular morning, not only had Papa’s normally light cinnamon colored skin taken on a deeper ruddiness, speaking clearly to the fact that something had him fairly upset and which also served as a warning to most people but his forehead had deep furrows and a frown was sat upon his face. Papa’s normally slow deliberate steps were also different because he was walking with such speed that his one unbuttoned overalls shoulder strap was almost flying horizontally behind him. Something had surely angered him this morning yet, Papa hadn’t been hammering and to my knowledge Ole Mack had been on his best behavior. Maybe his use of those words had more to do with whatever he and Mama had been discussing prior to Con’ Gene’s greeting. They hadn’t sounded angry with each other yet here was Papa overtaking the several yards from back to front in a record few steps and me running to keep up with him.
As I think back, perhaps he didn’t know I was behind him until his sudden stop at the front gate caused me to collide with his backside. He reached out to steady me and then lifted me up in his arms as he exited the front gate and entered the wide driveway of our house.
Con’ Gene was maneuvering his two mules and the slide so that he was now facing back the way he’d come. (A slide was wagon without wheels, usually used to haul heavy items and could save the difficult effort of having to lift items the additional two to three extra feet in height which wagon wheels would add. It was a common tool on farms and was especially useful in field work whereby produce and sacks of feed would not have to be lifted or barrels of water could be easily loaded, filled and hauled into fields to irrigate crops during dry spells. A slide could also be counted on not to get bogged down in soft earth).
I can scarcely remember a time when Con’ Gene wasn’t on his slide, appearing as a Captain upon his bridge, giving commands to Jenny and Black Gal, his two mules. Just as Papa sidled up next to the slide, Con’ Gene yelled out, “Whoa there, Black Gal!” I thought he was making reference to having seen me run headlong into Papa’s rear-end. He and Papa offered gruff sounding greetings to each other which puzzled me. Why on earth did all three adults standing on this farm today seem angry or upset with hardly any words having been spoken? Con’ Gene looked at me, still in Papa’s arms, and greeted me with, “Mornin Big Eyes.” I determined I didn’t like that name any more than I’d liked it when I thought he was calling me Black Gal but since Papa wasn’t frowning anymore I forgave him instantly as Papa slid me back to the ground and just as he did, Black Gal nipped at me! I further decided, then and there, that I didn’t like her…and tried to gather enough nerve to walk around her in order to reach Jenny who seemed to have a nicer disposition, at least she wasn’t braying and pulling against her harness.
I listened as Con’ Gene and Papa talked about their animals, mules and horses, specifically. Their conversation wasn’t exciting enough to keep me completely enthralled although I did manage to pick up snippets here and there. It all sounded so mundane to my, as yet, untrained ears especially owning to my inability at age 5, to decipher the Adults only language.
Con’ Gene mentioned something about another mule at home in his kitchen, (but I thought he only had these two), and why and how if he had another one, would he leave it at home in his kitchen? And why would Miss Allie even allow a mule in her kitchen anyway? That was just almost unbelievable…I’d have to ask Papa about this later because while I had been granted the opportunity to stay with these two men during their conversation, I would not be welcomed to comment on it. I was more than happy to wait until Papa, and I were alone again to ask him about the mule in Con’ Gene’s kitchen. But just as I was about to happily skip away to some other more interesting pursuit, I heard Papa say that his mare wasn’t so wind broken that she couldn’t stir things up in his house too. What… was… he… talking… about??? Neither Mama or Mother had she been home, would have allowed Papa to bring a horse in the house and besides, Ole Mack was a gelding which meant he was a boy and not a mare which was a girl! At this point, I had to agree with a sentiment I’d often heard other women declare, “MEN!” These two men were certainly hard to make sense of although that last comment of Papa’s seemed to have taken the angry edge from both of their voices. As they continued to laugh and talk about their mules and mares, I took great pains to stay away from the working end of Black Gal! I truly believed that it was she who had the bad temper and not the mule Con’ Gene had left in his kitchen! Every time I tried to walk around her to reach Jenny, she would again nip at me. At some point the men stopped talking about their beasts of burden and began watching my antics. I didn’t want to leave Papa’s field of vision, but I dearly wanted to say howdy to Jenny. Frustrated, I blurted out to Con’ Gene as to whether he would please leave Black Gal at home next time and bring the mule he’d left in his kitchen. I don’t know why my question left them both doubled over in boisterous laughter and if my life had depended upon it, I could not have explained what had caused it. But in that very exact moment, Mama appeared on the front porch calling out a greeting and inquiring of Con’ Gene’s wife. “I left her piddlin around the kitchen, so I reckon she’s better since I left,” was his reply. Papa looked over his shoulder toward the front porch where Mama stood and asked her to bring Con’ Gene a dipper of water. Con’ Gene gave his thanks but declined the offer saying he needed to head toward home, or Allie would be upset about having to hold up dinner.
I was sorely disappointed to see them leave so soon because I’d still not had a clear opportunity to reach Jenny and because Papa’s scowl was beginning to return. As Con’ Gene pulled away, Mama told Papa that she had set the table for dinner. She’d said that Chicken and Dumplings, Fried Okra, Cornbread and Buttermilk (Cush-Cush) and blackberry cobbler would grace his table, the frown left Papa’s face and a smile found his lips. Papa picked me up again and we followed Mama into the house and as she had promised, we found the table laden with her wonderful dishes and a basin of warm water, soap and a towel for which Papa and I were to use to wash before feasting.
After we had thanked God for His bounty and asked His benevolence for those less fortunate, and as Mama ladled steaming helpings Chicken and Dumplings onto our plates, I’d asked Papa if he thought Miss Allie would have gotten the mule out of the kitchen in time to cook Con’ Gene’s dinner? Papa almost spit out whatever he had put into his mouth and Mama folded her arms across her bosom and with a mild look of consternation, cast in both of our direction, suddenly and without any reason I could determine, both roared in unmeasured laughter…
…Still laughing, Papa reached over and patted my head and I, after being thoroughly baffled by adults for at least the last couple of hours, decided to be quiet, to be still and just eat. I didn’t want to be laughed at any more today or the week for that matter. Maybe I’d remember to recount my story to my sister when she returned, and I could ask her what she thought had been so funny to these adults today. But regardless of why they had laughed, Papa was no longer murmuring under his breath, Mama was no longer obsessively washing the same pan over and over and HOPEFULLY, Con’ Gene and Miss Allie were enjoying an equally wonderful and laughter-filled supper.
…. Chickens Crowing ain’t always a bad thing is it Papa?